The Seventh Circle of Hell
THANATOS ENDED UP not taking me to the mortal realm where he needed to collect souls. Instead, sensing my fatigue and my newly acquired proneness to panic attacks, he took me to one of the other rooms and allowed me to clean up.
I was still wearing the outfit I had been wearing six months ago when we stormed the Circle of Judecca’s hiding spot under the Academy for the Naturally Gifted in California. On Earth. Where I no longer was.
Luckily, Lillian had brought my backpack with me but the only clothes I had in there were a part of my Academy uniform. Sighing at my inability to make good packing decisions, I grudgingly put on the black and gray pleated skirt and a white collared button-down. I shoved my head through the slightly oversized black pullover with the Academy insignia on the right breast and pulled on the gray thigh high stockings.
As soon as she got back, Lillian and I needed to have a conversation about where to get clothes around here.
I thought about sleeping, but instead, I found myself back in the bathroom inspecting my appearance. Thanatos was wrong about nothing physically changing about me--the biggest part of my outer identity was no longer a part of me.
My once wavy silver hair now matched the color of my eyebrows. I decided to let the black strands air dry, fascinated with how this one change made me feel unrecognizable. Maybe it wasn’t the hair, maybe it was the fuzzy feeling I’ve had since I woke up.
The unnatural way that my mind was convinced that I was a stranger to my own body.
The eye contact I’d made with my own reflection was broken when I felt a high-pitched humming burst through my left eardrum. I groaned out in pain and immediately clutched my head in my hands in an attempt to stop the sound from flossing my brain.
Damn this hurts!
In my angst, I managed to look up to see my disheveled and pained reflection. For a moment, I thought I saw my eyes flash a red hue, but blinking several times convinced me that it was a figment produced as a result of my pain.
After what felt like hours (but was likely minutes), the pain let up and I let out ragged breaths as I sank against the bathroom wall behind me. When I hit the floor, I had my first thought of clarity.
What the hell is happening to me?
It took me a while to leave the bathroom. I was scared that my mind might suffer from a paralyzing attack or, worse, figure out that it was my own mind that had turned against me.
I walked back into the bedroom, opting to sit on the edge of the bed with my fists clenched against my thighs. I needed my fingers to stop their incessant twitching. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I was completely on edge without a perceived threat to be wary of.
I forced my eyes closed in an attempt to remember what had happened to me. Anything that could give me insight as to what had me feeling like this. Anxious, hyper-vigilant, overly sensitive.
God, I sound like a psychotic mess.
Drawing a sharp breath, I tried to concentrate. In my head, rapid flashes of images in muffled sound. Nothing of discernible importance: there were images of me and the cawing of a raven.
Useless. Entirely useless.
Before I could continue to berate myself, I heard the small rumblings of a distant commotion. From what I could tell, several people have managed to find their way to the downstairs foyer of the castle.
Curiosity getting the better of me, I walked over to the double doors of my bedroom suite, flung them open, and followed the sounds. It got louder and louder as I took the spiraling stairs down from the third floor of the castle to the first floor.
Phlegeton clearly hadn’t been used in well over a century (maybe even longer) judging by the cobwebs, flickering electric lights, and peeling wallpaper. Corners of the hallways had debris as if they had been swept aside to be dealt with later. The windows were covered by dark red curtains, but judging by the number of curtains I’d seen, I can only assume that at one point this castle relied primarily on outside light for illumination.
This was definitely not a typical residential castle either used for royalty. There were dozens of paintings of praised warriors collecting dust, either fallen to the ground or handing to the wall lopsidedly. Swords were everywhere and there were old combat ranking boards everywhere. Not to mention, this castle’s layout was completely different than the one in Berith’s memories.
I reached the stairwell opening where those standing in the foyer could have a clear view of whoever was descending the steps. Bracing myself, I walked down the velvet steps (desperately in need of a good vacuum, might I add) and was startled to see a large crowd of men, women, and children of all different ages and races chattering loudly. Their voices were filled with fear, worry, and anxiety and I could hear their desperation for answers.
Who are these people? I wondered as I took the steps one at a time slowly. How did they get here?
As if answering my unspoken questions, Lillian’s signature partially dyed ponytail came into view as she pushed past some of the crowd members and made her way up the steps to me.
“I thought Than told you to sleep,” She demanded more than questioned. “What are you doing here?”
I blinked at the nickname she had for the personified spirit of Death but didn’t comment on it. “I, uh, heard voices,” I gestured awkwardly to the growing crowd. “What’s going on?”
I saw Lillian visibly swallow her annoyance at having to deal with both my questioning and the growing crowd of worried people. “They’re refugees--souls that survived the demonochamy and have been in hiding for the past thousand years.”
I nodded slowly. It took me a moment to remember that Leviathan’s actions ravaged the entire Hell dimension, years before the Circle of Judecca even came into existence.
“Why the sudden move?” The question was directed towards Lillian but my eyes were caught on a little girl with pigtails and dirty clothes gripping onto an older woman carrying a baby. “They seem so scared.”
Lillian sighed, “Asmodeus has been running the camp for the better part of the millennia. He refused to leave them without protection.”
“How secure is this place?”
She shook her head, “Not as secure as where they were before. But we don’t have a choice. Asmodeus is the only one that can get us to Leviathan and end this once and for all.”
Somehow, through the pandemonium, I saw a temporary solution clearly. Maybe all I needed was a distraction, a problem to solve, to snap me out of this post-death haze I couldn’t seem to shake off of me.
“I think I have an idea about securing the palace,” I tell Lillian quickly and her eyebrows shoot up at my words, but I keep going. “But we need to get them calm first: split them up into four groups: families, single women with children, single men, and children younger than sixteen. Once you do that, move each group into a different floor of the castle: families take the first floor, single women take the second, and so on.”
Something akin to a smile slipped on her face, “Not bad, Storm.”
She turned away from me and descended a few steps, still high enough for everyone in the foyer to see her.
“Hey!” Lillian shouted above the voices and suddenly the crowds fell into silence. “Here’s what’s going to happen: I need you to split into four different lines! Families,” She pointed to the area farthest to her right. “Single women and their children.” She pointed to the spot next to where she had pointed before. “Single men. And children under sixteen over there.”
Almost immediately, the crowd began to disperse and morph into separate lines. The voices weren’t as chaotic as before, almost as if Lillian’s directions had given them much needed clarity.
As the lines began, I could see that people were entering the room through a...mirror. It was a full-length mirror leaning against the back wall of the entrance room. People stepped through and others near the backs of their lines were informing them of where to go.
“Thank you,” Lillian breathed out from next to me as she took in the scene also. “Berith sprung this on me and this isn’t really my type of thing.”
No. Killing and maiming and bombing is more your style.
We watched soundlessly as more and more individuals filed in, the lines starting to curve into the depths of the castle in an attempt to make more room. I glanced over and to see Lillian muttering something repeatedly. It took me a moment to realize she was counting.
Phlegeton was huge, but...could it house them all?
When she stopped, I turned to look at the mirror. Instead of wrangled-looking people coming through the glass, a familiar looking woman with striking green eyes and fading blonde highlights stepped through. The people recognized her and cleared a path for her to the staircase when her eyes narrowed on us.
Right behind her was a large, muscular man with curly brown hair falling below his chin, dark green eyes, and a scar cutting his right eyebrow in half. He scratched his beard before following after the woman.
Another girl (she didn’t look a day older than eighteen), this time a natural blonde, with blue eyes came through the mirror. Her lips were slightly blue and I realized, compared to the two that came in before her, she was not wearing a jacket.
I had to fight back tears of relief when I saw Berith come into the castle after her.
It was strange seeing him outside of the depths of my mind or in visions or memories he’d shared with me. I never took into account his height (he was at least five or six inches taller than me from what I could tell) and couldn’t have told you that his hair was in curly tufts on his head—not nearly as long as Asmodeus’s.
The only thing familiar about him apart from his pale green eyes was the fact that his mouth was set in a seemingly permanent scowl.
Honestly, that was all I needed to see.
My feet moved on autopilot as I rushed down the steps and expertly weaved through the young children in line to throw my arms around Berith’s neck.
From the way he stiffened before relaxing, I knew he hadn’t even seen me coming.
“I thought you were dead,” I tell him truthfully as I press my face into his tanned neck. “That I ruined your chances of—.”
“Hey, hey,” He interrupted me in his deep tenor.
“I’m okay. Look at me.” I pull away from him slightly to take in his face where he was watching me with concern. “I’m not dead.”
I could see there was a small hint of amusement in his eyes, likely at my worry for him being dead when I was the one that had actually died.
Narrowing my eyes at him, I let him go and take a step away from the demon prince.
“Forgive me for being concerned,” I yield sarcastically. “It’s just that when I spent my entire life being told that you and I can’t be alive at the same time without you possessing me, I couldn’t help but be a little skeptical when people are telling me that your alive and I’m alive.”
Before he could counter my words (judging by the growing smirk on his face, I’m guessing it wasn’t something I’d want to hear anyway), the brunette with the intense green eyes and fading dye job came up to us.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me, little brother?” She asked factitiously. When Berith didn’t do anything but send her a glare, the woman turned to me with a wicked grin.
“Forgive his poor manners, I’m Astaroth, demon princess of pride.”
Upon hearing her name, several things clicked in place for me. She was not only familiar because she shared similar features with Berith, but because she’d been in his memories a while back.
I give her a wary smile. If memory serves me correctly, Berith wasn’t her biggest fan and Lillian despised her.
“Azariah Storm,” Another voice cut in. Sometime between her introduction, the larger male that shared an eye color with Berith and Astaroth had sidled up next to us.
He gave me a warm smile that didn’t match his warrior appearance. “Asmodeus, demon prince and ruler of Lust.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Astaroth clapped her hands together once and gave a fake yawn. “Now that the pleasantries and boring stuff is out of the way, can someone please tell me how we’re going to clear this hall? It’s so...stuffy in here.”
“That’s what happens when you bring over a hundred refugees into a castle through a mirror,” Lillian snapped from behind us.
Astaroth’s smile got impossibly wider. “Oh, look. It’s the royal bitch. I’ve missed you, Lily.”
If anyone ever doubted Lillian’s ability to commit murder, the look she shot at Astaroth told me that she’d gladly give us a demonstration right now.
“Astaroth,” Berith reprimanded his older sister. “You couldn’t go two minutes? Really?”
The princess rolled her eyes in response. “Next time she should watch her tone.”
“Don’t worry,” Lillian replied with more than a hint of irritation. “You won’t make it to a next time.”
The blonde I didn’t recognize stepped in before Lillian and Astaroth could exchange deadly words (or blows) in front of all of us.
“I think it would be in everyone’s best interest if we got everyone settled in,” She suggested in a dainty voice that still held power. “Lillian?”
Lillian bit back another remark and stalked off to the first line to start guiding them up the stairs, the other girl following on her heels.
“I’m still not convinced that we’ll be safe here,” Asmodeus said in a hushed tone to Berith, but it was loud enough for me and Astaroth to hear. “You told us that you had to leave the Blood City Palace just hours after you settled. We can’t risk that with all of these people—these children.”
I clear my throat and the three demons turned to look at me. “I might be able to help with that.”